Michigan State’s Keith Appling learns how to take charge

Keith Appling's 3-point accuracy (28-for-58, .483) leads the Big Ten and is a vast improvement from his .320 mark of last season.

Raj Mehta/Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Keith Appling has learned how to take charge.

That might seem like a late lesson for a senior point guard, but it’s come at the perfect time for this Michigan State basketball team.

Appling has gone from good to great this year, and joined classmate and dynamic power forward Adreian Payne in directing what could very well become a journey to their promised land.

Tom Izzo has never, in 18 previous seasons as head coach, had a four-year player not reach the Final Four. Appling and Payne, who isn’t expected to play Wednesday at Northwestern because of a sprained right ankle, don’t want to be the first.

Although Payne came on strong during the stretch run last season, Appling wasn’t a difference-maker. Now he’s also become a force to be reckoned with for the No. 4 Spartans (15-1, 4-0 Big Ten).

Appling ranks eighth in conference scoring (16.4), third in assists (4.6) and second in assists-to-turnovers ratio (2.4).

His 3-point accuracy (28-for-58, .483) leads the Big Ten and is a vast improvement from his .320 mark of last season. He’s averaging three more points and 1.3 more assists per game this year.

Most important, he’s added a "voice," according to MSU assistant coach Dane Fife, who spends considerable time working with Appling.

He’s got the power of the voice now, and the guys will listen.

MSU assistant coach Dane Fife on Keith Appling

"We worked with the Army Special (Operations) guys on campus before this season in regard to leadership," Fife said. "That put Keith out of his comfort zone. And on the first day, he struggled.

"On the second day, they asked us, ‘Should we come at him some more?’ We said, ‘Heck, yeah!’"

And Appling began to respond and grow.

"He learned to project his voice to communicate," Fife said. "He’s got the power of the voice now, and the guys will listen. And he’s learned how to get through to each teammate."

Spartans starting center Matt Costello said, "He doesn’t have ups and downs now. Between him and (shooting guard) Gary (Harris), they’ve been the steadiest players on the team. (Keith’s) grown up and shows us the way."

Appling’s improved communication skills are evident in his media interviews, as well. He used to look at the ground when conversing and show little emotion.

After Monday night’s practice, he looked reporters in the eye and smiled, and was conversing rather than getting questions out of the way.

"For me to go where I want to go, I have to step outside my comfort zone," Appling said. "At first, it was a little rocky doing that.

"But that whole (Army Special Operations) experience taught me many different aspects of leadership. It helped me and my teammates."

Appling credited Izzo, Fife and the entire coaching staff for helping him mature on and off the court. Appling, a sociology major from Detroit Pershing High, said he will become the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

"Growth comes with Tom," said Appling, who watched Pershing teammate Derrick Nix also become the first in his family to graduate from college (last year) while developing as a player under Izzo.

Appling’s game grew as surely as his leadership. Fife said Appling’s improved shot and passing were the second and third elements to his becoming a complete player.

"Now he’s really good at getting them the ball where they can score," said Fife, a Clarkston (Mich.) High graduate who was recruited to Indiana by Bob Knight and led the Hoosiers to the 2002 Final Four as a tough defensive guard for new coach Mike Davis.

Appling said, "Coach Fife and all the coaches helped me a lot with my passing. And I watched a lot of film this summer of Tony Parker and Chris Paul."

Parker of the San Antonio Spurs and Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers are two of the best passers in the NBA.

"I watched how they distributed the ball to their teammates, and it’s meant more assists for me and more baskets for my teammates," Appling said. "With Parker, it’s the way he penetrates and gets a defense to collapse (on him).

"With Paul, it’s some of those same things and shot selection, how he comes off ball screens and decision-making."

Being a point guard always comes back to leadership, and Appling’s finally made the transition from shooting guard.

He’s also practiced long and hard on his own shot, taking dozens of shots before and after each practice until he’s satisfied with his stroke.

Appling shot for at least 15 minutes after Monday’s practice with a student manager rebounding balls for him. He nailed 11 consecutive 3-pointers from the right corner at one point, but wasn’t satisfied. He kept moving around the perimeter, daring himself to come closer to perfection.

Appling’s taking nothing for granted and taken charge of the Spartans.